The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture
At least since Alberti’s De Re Aedificatoria, the primacy of the built artifact in architecture has been under debate. Some contend that one must experience a building to fully comprehend it, while others argue that the product of the architect – namely, representation – should be sufficient for judgment and critique. The rising disciplinary interest in affect and atmosphere, not to mention increased capacity for simulation, makes it likely this debate will intensify in coming years. But as photorealism and animated fly-throughs become expected forms of representation, will taste change in response? As patrons grow accustomed to viewing architecture onscreen, will sensitivity to the subtleties of architectural experience build or recede? In a culture with an ever-shorter attention span, the answers are murky at best.
Farshid Moussavi’s design for the new Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Cleveland, Ohio has provided an early rehearsal of these new expectations. A founding principal of the recently fractured Foreign Office Architects, Moussavi was selected in 2007 to design MoCA’s new home, now under construction at Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road in the University Circle neighborhood. Part of a major redevelopment project instigated by Case Western Reserve University, the museum is scheduled for completion in 2013.
MoCA’s new home is to be a comparatively simple gem-like object, its sleek carapace concealing an intricately woven series of spaces with a large rectangular gallery at the apex. Central to the design are reflections and refractions caused by its black stainless steel skin, along with the mood engendered by this skin’s rich blue-violet interior surfaces. Also notable is its innovative nested fire egress system, which saves floor area and enabled Moussavi’s canted walls – cause of the aforementioned reflections – to remain in place through design development.
Debate surrounding Moussavi’s design has been fierce from the start. When it was initially revealed in July 2010, a public expecting formal pyrotechnics were underwhelmed. The city’s cultured patrons seemed flabbergasted by the design’s lack of ostentation, along with its somewhat curious orientation on site. Certainly, it was nothing to rival the much-ballyhooed Yokohama Port Terminal, FOA’s best-known project, completed in 2003. Rumors began circulating of unreasonable expectations placed on the architects by curator Jill Snyder, and of an inadequate construction budget. It was the old familiar story: one more disappointing building by a well-known architect in Cleveland. In a rush to judgment, Cleveland had missed the point.
Granted, Moussavi’s stainless steel jewel was sure to be confounding when delivered to a public expecting instant formal gratification. The desired effect of MoCA’s faceted surfaces can’t be communicated in two dimensions: not in newspapers, and certainly not when viewed on computer screens, as most images of the new MoCA were circulated. Though simple enough to illustrate, the real significance of these effects won’t be exposed until the built artifact emerges.
As do many progressive offices, FOA attempted to circumvent this problem with a fly-through video. Like most in the growing genre of architectural cinematography, the MoCA “virtual tour” attempts to give an overview of the building design through several smooth, slippery panning shots. While somewhat alleviating concerns over its site placement, the video struggles to capture atmosphere and reflection. More an animated rendering than a film, one could say the MoCA virtual tour falls short of communicating because of its cinematic naiveté.
Seduced by the possibilities of a camera unconstrained by gravity and material, most architectural animators have tossed aside film’s already well-developed language. Whether blame is placed on the shoulders of animators or the limitations of their software, it can’t be denied that films on par with MoCA’s virtual tour leave one unsatisfied, in need of more detail and more character.
If we are to continue toying with film, we as a discipline should consult the body of expertise the film industry has built over the course of the last century. Unlike orthographic drawing, film is a medium with which the public is already well acquainted; its power shouldn’t be underestimated. Should architects become more adept at communicating the subtlety and complexity of the built artifact in film, taste might be directed increasingly away from the instant gratification of formal ostentation, toward an architecture that rewards close attention and genuine encounter. Even in such a future, the built artifact would remain the subject of much dispute. Get used to it, the debate isn’t going to dissipate anytime soon.